Managing livestock off the veld: basics of feeding ruminants.

By Taruvinga Magwiroto

I have friends and relatives trying their hand in managing livestock on their small plots. Over the years, I have watched some of them do really well, and others not-so well. Here are my top reflections pertaining this issue.

Understand the nutrition basics of ruminants.

In livestock enterprises, feed constitutes the biggest investment cost, accounting close to 75% of all recurring costs. Luckily, cattle, sheep and goats are ruminant animals. This means they have a 4-chambered stomach which is efficient in converting fibrous materials into meat.

The basis for this efficiency is in the fact that the ruminant forechamber- called the rumen- is really a big fermentation vat inhabited by millions and millions of micro-flora. These micro-flora (called commensals) live off the fibrous materials inside the rumen, thereby assisting in making available to their ruminant host a whole array of nutrients.

These nutrients are vitamins, volatile fatty acids (energy-forming), and amino acids which are essential for ruminant growth and productivity. The micro-flora also end up in the last chamber of the stomach where they die in the acidic environment and become themselves digested to become an important source of the ruminant’s proteins.

So the insight to take away in all this is: how do you make the ruminant micro-flora happy? How do we maximise their health? How do we prevent their death?

Rumen commensals are relatively cheap maintenance. Give them a ready source of energy. Give them a source of non-protein nitrogen. And they will gladly go to work digesting all that plant cellulose to release nutrients for your ruminant animal!

Molasses, urea etc?

That’s right. Molasses is a cheap, ready source of energy that is frequently used to supplement ruminants. Now I think you realise that when you feed molasses, you will only be indirectly feeding your ruminant. The molasses is a ready source of energy for the rumen microflora to energise them to attack any fibrous material that our ruminant animal may be eating!

The same goes for urea. Urea is a source of non-protein nitrogen that the rumen micro-flora require to synthesize their own proteins. Other common sources of non-protein nitrogen are poultry droppings. Now you understand why some people feed poultry litter to ruminants? Yes, its all about the rumen micro-flora. But be careful when feeding urea: there is risk of urea poisoning in ruminants if taken in excess or when fed together with soya. Poultry litter also has risk for certain infectious agents e.g botulism. So obviously care must be taken.

So the veld is the basic source of nutrition for ruminant animals. But we also have to know our farming systems/natural regions and the influence of climate and weather on veld nutrition. For example, those in the high-veld need to understand that their veld can only maintain animal growth for certain part of the year. In the dry season, they may have to give their animals supplement feed.

More about farming systems/natural regions and their effect on veld nutrients in the next instalment. Leave your comments, like our articles and give us some feedback! Till next time, ciao!

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